John 4 – The ‘Outcast’ Samaritan Woman at the Well

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Alonso Cano 300x241 John 4   The Outcast Samaritan Woman at the WellWhen I first heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, something immediately struck me as not right with the story as I was being told. The woman was outcast, condemned, or so the traditional story is told. But as I read the story later, I didn’t read anywhere that the woman was condemned at all.
I think the main points to the story should be:

1 – Jesus and his band made their way through Samaria when many Jews of the day would walk around to avoid the country because of the prejudice that existed between the two societies of the day.

2 – Jesus is the ‘living water’. If we drink of Him, we will thirst no more.

3 – Many Samaritans came to believe Jesus was the promised Messiah; they first believed from the testimony of the Samaritan woman at the well, but then through their own first hand listening to Jesus.

4 – They invited Jesus into their homes to stay.

5 – They believed through word what the Jewish community would only believe through signs and miracles.

6 – That world stage was now set for workers to, through their words, to bring more to Christ, while the setting of the stage had been brought about by others.

7 – God is spirit, and seeks us to worship Him in spirit and truth, anywhere, all the time.

I’ve wondered about the wisdom of bringing up what I see as a flaw in the traditional reading of the story each time I hear it. If the above points are covered, that should be fine. But if the main point or only point of the story becomes Jesus who reaches out to the unwanted, then the story has been lost.

The traditional view says that because the Samaritan woman was out to draw water during the sixth hour, John 4:6, that she was an outcast from her society. The sixth hour being noon on the Jewish clock, no one would go out in the middle of the heat of the day, outside of town, to draw water, unless the other women in the community did not accept her. First, that’s just reading a lot of conjecture into the story which is not spelled out. Second, and more damning, a look at the places where John specifies time in his book shows that he is not on a Jewish, but a Roman clock. The sixth hour is not noon, but 6 p.m.

And now doesn’t that make more sense? Jesus was tired from his journey. It’s possible that the disciples were off to gather lunch. But if you were planning on a long journey in a place where you were avoiding downtown, it would seem much more reasonable to carry enough food to keep you over before you rested for the night. That way, you could grab food for dinner and enough to carry you over to dinner the next day. Otherwise, you’d be stopping and foraging for your three meals each time, each day. Even when I was a kid and there wasn’t fast food all over the place, when we were taking a long trip by car, we’d pack enough to keep us going until our stop for the night, where we could restock. It just makes more sense for that to be the case when your mode of transportation being foot power limits further the amount you can carry and the distance required to hit the local market.

Times are used in John in John 1:39, John 4:6, John 4:52, and John 19:14. From Matthew and Mark who both clearly use a Jewish clock, we know from chapters 27 and 15, respectively, that John is absolutely using the Roman clock for his description of Jesus before Pilate in John 19:14. John 4:52 is the only specified time which could be either in Jewish or Roman time. It’s an interesting exercise. Probably the easiest way to confirm the first three books of the the New Testament use the Jewish clock and John uses the Roman clock is to go through each instance of the use of hōra, or hour, and map out the possible times for yourself.

Jewish Time – day runs from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., then 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

1st hour = 7 p.m. (night) or 7 a.m. (day), 19:00 or 7:00

3rd hour = 9 p.m. (night) or 9 a.m. (day), 21:00 or 9:00

6th hour = 12 a.m. (night) or 12 p.m. (day), 00:00 or 12:00

7th hour = 1 a.m. (night) or 1 p.m. (day), 1:00 or 13:00

9th hour = 3 a.m. (night) or 3 p.m. (day), 3:00 or 15:00

10th hour = 4 a.m. (night) or 4 p.m. (day), 4:00 or 16:00

11th hour = 5 a.m. (night) or 5 p.m. (day), 5:00 or 17:00

Roman Time – Day runs from 12 a.m. to 12 p.m., then 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.

The conclusion becomes clear. John uses the Roman clock. And John 4:18 which mentions the sixth hour is referring to 6 p.m. on the Roman clock.

For some reason, the conclusion that the Samaritan woman has had 5 husbands, John 4:18, is one of the determining factors in her being an outcast. She’s out at noon collecting water. She’s had 5 husbands. And she’s living with some guy now who is not her husband. Here is the exchange.

John 4:16     He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.”
John 4:17     The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband';
John 4:18     for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”
John 4:19     The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.”

I’ve struggled over these verses. The traditional view makes absolutely no sense in my mind. First, if she was able to land 5 husbands, then she was far from an outcast. Either her husbands were dying or divorcing, but she was having no trouble getting a new suiter, then husband; clearly not the image of a woman outcast from society.

But what struck me also was this. How many woman in that era would have had 5 husbands? It’s a rarity today for a person to have had 5 spouses and to have a new girlfriend/boyfriend. How likely would that scenario have been in the 1st century?

I thought maybe Jesus was making some commentary on the ‘one flesh’ relationship. That this woman was now on her 6th sexual partner. The words translated as husband, ἀνήρ, transliteration anēr, and ἄνδρας, transliteration andras, are the singular and plural for husband, but more often simply translated as man, 3 times to 1, in the New Testament.   It’s a gender reference to distinguish from woman. It’s the same word for the 5,000 ‘men’ who eat from the bread and fish which Jesus miraculously distributes among the baskets. She’s had 5 men, and the man she was with now was also not her husband. (Jesus likes to play with the Aramaic language.)

This makes a bit more sense. In John 4:19 and referenced in John 4:39, the woman later goes on to say Jesus, “told me all the things that I have done.” Now wait a minute. Knowing that this woman had had 5 husbands would have been wide public knowledge in that community. Someone knowing this about me simply because I had not met them before would in no way lead me to believe he was a prophet or greater, the Messiah. Only if those relationships were in some way secret known only by me would such a conclusion even enter my mind.

Well today, I heard the traditional view being bantered around again, so it brought me back to the passage. I tried breaking down the Koine to take a closer look. And then it hit me. It’s to be read just as it is written.

John 4:18     for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”

The woman has had 5 husbands, none of them hers. All the husbands of someone else. And the one she is with today, the husband she is with today, is also not her husband. She’s been committing adultery with others’ husbands.

John 4:29     “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” (Now this makes more sense.)

I’m not sure what she shared with the town. She ran back to tell them about the man who knew everything she had done. If she were an outcast, no one would have been there to listen. She was still walking around, so no one had formally accused her of adultery or proven it. Still, if the men knew she was available, as some certainly did if 6 had taken advantage of the opportunity, then the community at large must have had some understanding or gossip was heard. She still had enough credibility to share enough of the knowledge Jesus had shown of her to share with the others in the community to entice them to directly see who this Jesus was.

John 4:23     “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.
John 4:24     “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

17 Comments

  1. I’m a Texas pastor and was reading the HCSB on John 4:52, and the translation reads “seven in the morning” as opposed to “the seventh hour” or “one in the afternoon” as most translate it. I had learned of the Jewish clock and always assumed the times should be recounted accordingly, but the HCSB translation had me baffled. Why would a translator make such an obvious goof as to translate the seventh hour as seven in the morning (or afternoon)? I did some online searching, and read one website which talked about John using the Roman clock. Interesting. Then I found your site with similar information. I was also intrigued by your take on the Samaritan woman’s situation with the husbands. Happy studying. God’s Word really is a joy to study.

  2. Thanks Pastor Lance. Good to hear from you. God, I think we all agree, is outside of time or enters into time where He chooses without affect to Himself. Off subject, but it struck me not long ago how much time, without being directly discussed, has affected the church created by timeless God. The great split with Arminianism & Calvinism, along with the newer entry, Open Theism, are all time focused issues. I have my ideas on the subject, but won’t be surprised to be completely wrong when I finally get to walk around with Jesus. Here’s another. If at Creation, time is created and with it process, how does one point, Creation, extend out of eternity? God is timeless, so Creation would always be occurring and the universe would have not progressed forward. More importantly, how does God live in triune relationship with not one moment being just as the last, but all existence prior to Creation being as if one moment? Relationship, thought occurs during process which requires time. Yet God is outside of time.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that the Bible is written through divine inspiration by men with a man-centric view of time, except when discussing future prophetic events. And that God created not only man, but the universe in His own image. That attribute which he added to the universe, the one which has caused such a huge rift in the church, time.

    The universe plods along its deterministic course. Animals are driven by the seasonal clock. But only we regret the past, worry over the future and forget to live in the only time we can, now.

    I don’t think the future exists as dimension, just as the past is already gone. I find it comforting to think God can know the future. But no matter your bent, either thousands, millions or billions of years ago, God had a plan to save and set us straight. And He orchestrated His plan perfectly so that on Passover Jesus would be ready to become our sacrificial lamb.

  3. God bu for giving information about time. Romans time and Jewish time.

  4. Perhaps you would like to read another interpretation of the samaritan woman and her five husbands that I found online. I wonder what you may think about this http://www.nijjhar.freeserve.co.uk/fvhusbnd.htm

    He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. That is, the woman like Saul was so religious a person that she was leading a life of “celibacy” as to be not tempted by the weakness of flesh at all. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.” In this statement, Jesus clearly confirms the answer given by the woman to the effect that she has no physical husband.

    “For you have had five husbands(these were 1. lust for sex, which she had subdued by choosing a life of celibacy devoted to the worship of God; 2. anger, which dominates the men of flesh or the hylics, she had overpowered it through holy spirit and she was not a fool but sensible enough to engage Jesus, a Person of Holy Spirit, into a deep religious discussion that even the disciples of Jesus were spell-bound not to interrupt; 3. greed she overpowered by leading a simple life; 4. worldly attachment she overpowered by leading a life of spinster; and 5. haughtiness of her religious knowledge was subdued by holy spirit through which she was understanding Gospel), and the man(pride of religious knowledge) you are now living with is not your husband(is not dominating you either). What you have just said is quite true.” That is she had no moral or physical husband of flesh.

    “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see(perceive) that you are a Prophet.” That is, the woman was so spiritually advanced as to tell Jesus that He seems to be a Prophet. “Our fathers(in flesh) worshipped(their tribal gods called ‘ILLAH’) on this mountain(by spirit), but you Jews(of letters) claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem(where no tribal gods were worshipped).” This reference is to the worship of the statues of dead gods and goddesses, which were used by the moral teachers as the visual aids in teaching the moral laws to the youngsters. This type of worship served its purpose when the moral teachers were men of spirit and their praises were with God and not with the men.

    • These were the five “husbands” of the Samaritan woman at the well:

      And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria, and lived in its cities. 2 kings 17:24

  5. None of these responses are right. God defined marriage as:
    Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. Genesis 2:24
    God never defined marriage through a legal contract or through a public ceremony, He defined marriage as what is stated in Genesis 2:24 that when one man is joined to one woman and they become one flesh they are married.
    God also never issued a divorce certificate, Moses did this as a result of the disobedient Israelite people [He] was leading.
    Christ made it clear to His disciples that the marriage God created and described in Genesis 2:24 has never changed and even though the world widely recognizes divorce God does not.
    Once one woman has sexual intercourse with one man in a consensual situation they are entering the covenant of marriage. Leaving one’s parents home clearly describes someone who is no longer a child dependent on their parents to raise them but someone who is able to seek God’s guidance directly.
    God’s revelation of the life of the woman at the well demonstrates that the covenant of marriage is not something man determines but God.
    For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly. John 4:18
    The women at the well had, had consensual sexual intercourse with five men making each of those men her husband BUT yet none of them were really hers. I prayed about this for a long time and God revealed to me that bond that is formed between one male virgin and one female virgin who have consensual sexual intercourse for the first time is recorded by God as marriage that only death can separate here on earth. Therefore the men that the woman at the well had consensual sexual intercourse with were not virgins because they had already had sexual intercourse with a virgin while they were virgins and thus became marriaged. Because the wives of these men had not died, she was committing the act of adultery by becoming one flesh with them. Whether or not these men had a ceremonial marriage or not, if they became one flesh with a virgin while they were virgins they were seen as married to that woman for the life of either spouse in the Eyes of God.
    But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. Matthew 5:32
    Christ permitted spouses to live separate from one another if adultery had been committed but they were not permitted to re-marry another while their spouse lived.
    Therefore the idea of premartial sex is a misnomer since it is through becoming one flesh that one is married. And only when two virgins become one flesh or a widow and a virgin or two widows is the marriage seen as non-adulterous in the eyes of God.
    Today people depend on engagement ceremonies, wedding rings, wedding ceremonies, wedding vows (Matthew 5:33) and government issued martial contracts to tell them that they are married. Well in the eyes of man these symbols are sufficient BUT man did not create marriage nor can their traditions and laws dictate to GOD how it should exist now or ever.
    This Truth is opposite to how the world does things like is the case with all God’s Truth. It is clear from the beginning and in the words of Christ that God is the creator of marriage and he created it to involve only one man and one woman to be bound as one flesh for the rest of their earthly lives.
    God stopped me from dating (although I am still free to make friends) and marrying someone by becoming one flesh simply to be like everyone else and I am grateful to Him with my life for sparing me from what would have been a total sin for my life. Now I know there is only one person out there for me to marry so I must be wise in making that choice before attempting to gain many husbands in this life through the act of adultery without any of them truly being mine in the Eyes of God!

    PRAISE and THANKS BE TO GOD, AMEN!!!

    • God duvorced israel WITH a certificate of divorce!, jeremiah 3:8

    • This post is a the perfect example of someone twisting scripture to make it as if Jesus wasn’t calling out sin.The junk today of pastors and laymen who act as if Jesus never spoke harsh or condemned sinners . .The woman and Jesus Jesus saith to her, ‘Well didst thou say — A husband I have not; 18 for five husbands thou hast had, and, now, he whom thou hast is not thy husband; this hast thou said truly.’ Hello she adulteress with a man who is not her husband .Jesus points out her sins . This woman excepted Jesus condemnation of her and wen to tell others of who Jesus is .. 25The woman said, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything” to us. 26Jesus answered, “I who speak to you am He

  6. Poetic,

    I’m going to speak frankly, because I think you are on the right path and I want to encourage you. As a latecomer to Christ, I can tell you that a one flesh relationship is made between each and every partner one has in their lives. There is some kind of spiritual intermingling which takes place. And it’s simply not healthy to a relationship, this tugging to and fro within a person who hasn’t followed your path. So keep your course, the course God has you on.

    And then, from the point of view of a guy, I heard there were these friends who were hassling the virgin. But if you don’t have sex before you’re married, how will you know your spouse-to-be will be any good. To which the virgin responded, how will I know? The friends didn’t understand at first. So, he repeated, how will I know? And of course, he’s right. He would have no experience with this girl or that girl to make a comparison. His wife would be his greatest (and only) lover for all time.

    Keep the faith and keep your path. You and your husband will have the greatest gift God has made for two to offer each other.

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  8. These were the five “husbands” of the Samaritan woman at the well:

    And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria, and lived in its cities. 2 kings 17:24

    • Comment

    • So false you are on this …This is a the perfect example of someone twisting scripture to make it as if Jesus wasn’t calling out sin.The junk today of pastors and laymen who act as if Jesus never spoke harsh or condemned sinners . .The woman and Jesus Jesus saith to her, ‘Well didst thou say — A husband I have not; 18 for five husbands thou hast had, and, now, he whom thou hast is not thy husband; this hast thou said truly.’ Hello she adulteress with a man who is not her husband .Jesus points out her sins . This woman excepted Jesus condemnation of her and wen to tell others of who Jesus is .. 25The woman said, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything” to us. 26Jesus answered, “I who speak to you am He

  9. Your interpretation is the closest to the truth. The Woman at the well is (prophetically) Israel. The Israel who had taken lovers and been divorced by her husband, (YHWH).

    “He told me everything I ever did.” Yes, Jesus speaks to us through His words to the Woman at the well even today.

    We (Israel) have been in adulterous/idolatrous relationships with all the kingdoms/empires of this world. (Revelation-“five are fallen”) Our true husband, our Redeemer will make us leave our water pots behind and seek the Living Water that only He can provide.

    • I will pray for you both because if you do not believe Christ was speaking to an actual woman at the well who had five husbands but none of them were her’s then you clearly don’t believe that the Word and its Truth is plain and requires only wisdom and understanding from the Almighty I AM to understand and accept the message therein (not a knowledge of symbolism). Sadly, neither of you have shown that you know and accept that simple truth. I AM bless!

      • Yes, please pray that I will express myself more clearly in the future. Of course Christ spoke with a literal woman at a literal well. There are many lessons to be learned from that conversation.
        There are also deeper (sometimes prophetic) meanings in scripture to be understood by those for whom He has laid up treasures, new and old. That’s why followers of Christ can read the same Book every day and never tire of it.
        Figurative speech and symbolism are in constant use throughout the Bible; in fact, most Hebrew words have a literal and a figurative meaning.
        The inhabitants of the Earth have a hard time understanding symbolism and acknowledging its importance in the Bible, but we who dwell in Heaven realize that every word our Savior spoke while on this earth is food for body AND soul.
        I hope you’ll forgive me if I miscommunicated my message.

  10. Good thoughts. I think you are right with the time. It seems forced to argue that John in certain areas uses the Jewish clock when he clearly does not in other areas. just had a couple of concerns with your interpretation. First, having several husbands may not be the problem you anticipate. Tamar has several husbands through death and she’s driven to prostitution to have sex with Judah (see also Tobit 3 for comparison; not claiming inspiration, just that it culturally isn’t out of the question). In an honor-shame society, having five husbands that all leave or die her might have been construed as a punishment from God, similar to Naomi’s cry in Ruth 1. Second, you do make the correct assertion that men and husband are the same word in Greek. We have five instances of this word all in a row “Call your a.” “I have no a” “You are right in saying you have no a. In fact, you’ve had five a’s and the one you have now is not your a.” The question remains which are referring simply to men (and thus sexual partners) and which are referring to husbands. The first two are unquestionably “husband” in meaning. The problem with the proposed interpretation is that we must change andres 3 and 4 to mean sexual partners and to have the final one switch back to mean “husband.” This seems a bit forced. Furthermore, we also have to account for why Jesus did not say “all of them have never been your husband.” Why did he only clarify the current aner as not really a husband? Moreover, I think it kind of difficult to make the case that in a small town such Sychar in a traditional Samaritan society (who vigorously kept the Samaritan Torah) that five illicit relationships have happened all in secret. She presumably was living with the men that she was having sex with, which would hardly make anything secret. If she did not live with the men, then why does Jesus say she currently has a sexual partner? This rules out prostitution in the traditional sense, which begs the question how she’s supported herself. The only way I could think about making this work for your framing of the story would be if she were a slave or concubine which explains the different men as well as the number. It also answers the question how she could live with a man not her husband, have sexual relations, yet not be a prostitute (again, would a prostitute truly have said, “I currently have one specific man?”). This, however, does not respond to why Jesus does not clarify the others as not husbands. I find the most plausible explanation to be a mixing of divorce, death, an adultery, and current concubinage. The previous husbands all left for one reason or another and left destitute with no dowry left had to sell herself as a concubine. This would make her an outcast and her situtation known, yet it seems difficult to find a choice, that keeps her lifestyle a secret in a small town, while still being livable financially and not violating Jesus’s comments of current having of a man and the specification for being andres being reserved only for the final one.

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